I was lucky enough to meet Chantal Baros at a lively All Saints celebration that a very generous mutual friend hosted for a group of local moms in Chicago. Earlier that morning I had begun to cull through my own “liturgical celebrations bin” (i.e. the catch-all tub that carries all the items I have yet to find a permanent place for) to pull out items that I would need for Advent. Among all my little treasures was a precious hand-sized doll that my son’s godmother had gotten for him when he was a baby. He carried it around for months before we carefully packed it away so that we could stuff it into shoes and enjoy it the following year.
That afternoon at the party, I was floored to see that my sweet mama friend had an entire collection of these little saint dolls on her family altar. They were so cheerful and festive. I made a passing comment that I loved them and typed a little reminder into my phone to look at the website later that night.
Fast forward (literally) a few minutes later and I found myself talking to a mother who had children that were of a similar age to mine. She had the perfect amount of sarcasm. I knew we could be friends. She also happened to be the founder of Shining Light Dolls.
I don’t feel like I need to advertise for Chantal. Her work speaks for itself. It’s colorful. It’s inviting. In my opinion, it introduces children to the saints in a very accessible, fun way. What truly amazes me about Chantal is her ability to thoughtfully blend her Catholic identity, her vocation as a mother, and her gift as an artist into a fully integrated life.
She was kind enough to let me inundate her with questions so I am just going to step aside and let you meet this wonderful Catholic girl boss.
Give us a brief introduction to who you are and your life in the Church.
I am a cradle Catholic. I owe my parents everything because they gave me my faith. My mother is a daily Mass-goer and has a very strong faith. She loves the saints and has probably read every book on the topic. So I guess you could say I feel like I grew up with the lives of the saints always around me. No matter the topic, my mom had a saint story for me. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have the normal teenage rebellion against my childhood faith- I did, but I think that having such an incredibly strong foundation made it easier for me to “own” my faith in my college years. Now I love everything about the Church. There is something for everyone. No matter who you are you have a place. I guess that’s why I still love the saints so much, aside from the obvious fact that they’re all just super cool and amazing people. It’s that they are all so different from each other. Everyone can have that beautiful connection to God. The Catholic Faith is simultaneously simple and incredibly rich. I love the theology, the traditions, the ritual – all of it.
How has your business shaped your faith? How has it overlapped with your spiritual practices, your job as a mother, and your creative outlets as an artist?
Wow, that’s a good question! The business took my faith from my head into my heart. Prior to starting Shining Light Dolls, I had a very intellectual faith. The business gave me the opportunity to experience, for myself, all the amazing things God can do when you hear His call and take that leap. Starting a business is a scary thing, even when you know it’s what God is asking you to do. I’m a mom, and I feel like the closest comparison is the call to have a child. Even when you know it’s what God is asking of you, you don’t always know the outcome. So the early years of the business were like pregnancy – a mixture of excitement and fear. Like having children, you learn that you can only do so much and then the rest is up to God. The business has definitely increased my patience, my fortitude, and my trust in God’s providence.
Back when I started Shining Light Dolls, I was just dating my now husband. So the way that I’ve related to the business over the years has changed as my family life has changed. If anything, I think the business has really flourished since I became a mom. I have less time but the love I have for my children inspires me to create differently, to work harder, and to use the time I do have wisely. My two books, “The Virgin Mary-Around the World” and “Saints on the Go” were inspired by my son. The first, a board book, I wrote when he was a baby- and then the second when he became a vehicle-obsessed toddler. I think the books have been so successful because I wrote them for him.
Starting a business is hard enough – but you started it in the throes of early motherhood! What have been some unexpected challenges and some unexpected joys in regards to your business?
Starting a business at the same time as starting a family is definitely tricky! Even though having babies is HARD (at least it is for me) – my biggest obstacle has always been myself. Life is never easy- and at some point, I woke up and realized that there was never going to be a “perfect time” for anything. There is no such thing. Life is always going to be complicated. I really have to keep my life pretty streamlined in order to have time for the business after taking care of the kids. Each new chapter of our family life brings new challenges to the business. There have been times where I stopped working because of motherhood (pregnancy sickness, postpartum recovery), and that can be incredibly frustrating. As an artist, I miss the freedom to create whenever I want- whenever inspiration strikes. BUT- the difficulties are actually the parts that have made me mature in ways I don’t think I would have otherwise. I learned that I could become a morning person, a list-maker, a work-an- hour-at- a-time artist. I learned that I can wake up at 5 in the morning and still have the energy to cook dinner. I learned how to prioritize my life around my vocations as wife, mother, and artist/business owner. I learned that I don’t need to feel like creating to create. I honestly love the balance of work/art/play my business and children give me. I’m a better artist/business owner because of my children, and a better mom because of my business. My work recharges my batteries, and my kids recharge my heart. They are a constant reminder of why I do what I do, and also keep my priorities in order.
What does your creative process look like? Do you create saint dolls that have a personal meaning to you? Are there saints you have connected with since making them into dolls?
My creative process has evolved over the years. In the beginning, all of the “TheVirgin Mary Around the World” dolls were first drawn by hand – pencil to paper on my kitchen table. Prior to starting Shining Light Dolls, I was a full-time oil painter specializing in portraiture (so pretty much nothing like the Shining Light Doll style). After a novena to the Infant of Prague, the idea of the company sort of just hit me. It was the cliché “light bulb moment”. I was like- that’s a great idea – but I have no idea how to do that! So, I used Youtube video tutorials to teach myself how to use Adobe Illustrator. Now, five years later it’s all I use. Coming from a traditional oil background, I never thought I’d be creating my art digitally, but I really love it now. I also dream of switching back to traditional media but maintaining the Shining Light Doll aesthetic- the possibilities feel exciting and endless. Each year I add more saints to the “Saint of the Day” Facebook posts. These are the images that later become dolls. I research the Saint, making notes on their imagery, symbolism, dress, time period, country of origin. This is especially important for the Saints featured in my books. I really want to make sure I illustrate a real place and time. “Saints on the Go” was such an interesting book to write/illustrate. I learned so much! It was fun trying to find Saints that actually were documented on different vehicles. I learn new things through my work all the time- I knew that St. Teresa of Calcutta had her “call within a call” on a train in India, but I had never actually seen a picture of the Toy Train to Darjeeling until I started working on my book. I always feel like I know these Saints more intimately after peeking into the world they lived in- they become more “real” to me. Choosing Saints to turn into dolls is SO HARD. They are all amazing. At the risk of suffering from analysis-paralysis though I try to create balance within the company. I like to look at the macro and the micro. How will these dolls work together in the larger collection (am I representing men and women, different religious orders, different time periods, ethnicities, etc.) as well as the individual Saint as it stands alone (what is their imagery, what are their traditional colors, what is their patronage, etc.). Now I receive a lot of feedback on the Facebook page about which Saints people are looking for, and that definitely influences which Saints are going to be produced next.
I realize this is a very big question, but from your perspective, what role can the Catholic artist play in their churches and communities?
I think there is a popular lie that the age of Catholic art and the Catholic artist ended with the middle ages. Catholic art is still relevant. Religious art is not antiquated. It also doesn’t have to be done in a Renaissance/Baroque/iconic style to be good or holy. My parents did me a huge favor in teaching that God gives us our talents for a reason and we are called to use them. Art is such an important part of any culture – and without good Catholic art what are we exposed to? I think that creating with the intention of producing beautiful work to glorify God, regardless of style, is SO important and will help to heal our culture. New Catholic art isn’t something to be feared; it doesn’t detract from the depth and solemnity of the faith. It has the ability to reach and touch people in a new way. I love traditional Catholic art, but I also love contemporary Catholic art. The Catholic artist in today’s world should do what the Catholic artist in any time period did – use the popular tools of the period to create work that glorifies God and points man toward the transcendental. Art can change the world; you just have to have faith that God is giving you the permission to create it. If God gave you a talent- don’t be afraid to use it.
Clearly, you are very busy. If God gifted you with a 25th hour to the day- how would you use it? (Sleeping is a totally appropriate answer.)
I would use an extra 25th hour (assuming my kids are asleep and I get to use the time to myself) for creating. I would paint, or draw, or do any other number of things- but it would definitely be creating in some form. (Although I should probably be using it to clean my house ) – or maybe to be more social, between work and the kids I don’t get out much (other than playgroups!).
Chantal’s way more productive than I would be with my 25th hour. She is constantly creating new dolls so check her out on her website- www.shininglightdolls.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Instagram under the handle @shininglightdolls.